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Is it “stutterer” or “child who stutters?” What about “CWS?”

Today’s blog entry is adapted from School-Age Stuttering Therapy: A Practical Guide (Reardon-Reeves & Yaruss, 2013, p. 9).

Many of us have wondered whether we should refer to our students as stutterers or as children who stutter.

Clinicians from many professions struggle with the appropriate use of “person-first” language to highlight the value of the person, rather than focus on the person’s problem. The issue can evoke strong emotions on both sides, and clinicians may feel caught in the middle when trying to figure out which term they should use.

As with so many topics in this field, there is no simple answer. Although there has not been any research examining this issue in children, research with adults has shown that some speakers prefer to be called "people who stutter" (in part because it highlights the fact that stuttering is only a part of them) while others simply prefer "stutterer" (St. Louis, 1999).

Because of these differences of opinion, we feel that it should be up to each individual, rather than society or the clinician, to determine which term is most comfortable.

Given that some people seem to be uncomfortable with the term stutterer, our rule of thumb is to use "person who stutters" or "child who stutters" in most situations, especially until we know how the individual we are speaking with views the issue.

That said, some people apparently believe that saying the term “child who stutters” repeatedly can cause problems of its own, so the use of abbreviations has become common in research reports. Thus, you will likely see authors referring to a PWS (“person who stutters”), CWS (“child who stutters”), or AWS (“adult who stutters”), while control groups of people who do not stutter may be referred to as PWNS, CWNS, and AWNS. We have even heard such usage become in conversational speech (“I have 3 CWSes on my caseload right now.”)

We recognize that this usage of abbreviations has arisen in an attempt to find a “middle ground” between person-first language and lengthier descriptors of people who stutter, but we have a strong bias against the use of these abbreviations.

Put simply, we find it to be even more dehumanizing to refer to people by a series of letters than by a label such as "stutterer".

If somebody were seeking to show respect for an individual by not labeling them with their disorder, it would seem at least as respectful to not reduce them to an abbreviation.

Thus, we always prefer to use the long form when talking about individuals who stutter--or, we simply refer to them as children or speakers or, plainly, people!

Regardless of the term that is used, we have found that it is helpful to talk with our clients in therapy about the terms that are typically used to refer to stuttering and people who stutter. This is particularly important for older students, because it is an issue that they will face throughout their lives.

When we help our clients become comfortable with these terms, they can discover their own preferences. This will help them develop coping skills for successfully managing their stuttering disorder and other people’s reactions to it over the long term.

J Scott Yaruss

Written by : J Scott Yaruss

J. Scott Yaruss, PhD, is a professor of Communicative Sciences and Disorders at Michigan State University. He has published more than 70 peer-reviewed manuscripts, more than 115 other papers on stuttering, and several clinical resources, including the Overall Assessment of the Speaker's Experience of Stuttering (OASES), Early Childhood Stuttering: A Practical Guide, School-Age Stuttering Therapy: A Practical Guide, the Minimizing Bullying program, and more (all published by Stuttering Therapy Resources, Inc.).